If she's scratching up a storm, it might be time to go to the vet.
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cat with miliary dermatitis licking her paw
Credit: RaspberryStudio / Adobe Stock

While this topic isn't much fun, it is important for every cat parent to know about. If your resident feline is scratching or licking excessively and she has a crusty red rash, she may have miliary dermatitis. It's a bit like hot spots on dogs, if you're familiar with that condition. But don't worry—it's treatable.

What Is Feline Miliary Dermatitis?

Miliary dermatitis, also called scabby cat disease, is an allergic skin reaction caused by a variety of allergens. The inflammation comes from a systemic reaction to one or more allergens that your cat is both exposed and sensitive to. A rash can appear, causing kitty to lick, bite, or scratch, and that can turn into painful lesions with scabs on them. The word "miliary" is used here because the crusty lesions resemble scattered millet seed. The term "dermatitis" describes inflammation of the skin.

What Causes Feline Miliary Dermatitis?

Miliary dermatitis is a sign of an underlying condition, usually an allergy. "The most common cause of miliary dermatitis in cats is a flea allergy," says Christine Sellers, DVM, and veterinary advisor for Cat Person. "It can also be caused by environmental allergies (pollens, house dust mites or storage mites, molds, other pets), seasonal allergies (pollens), food allergies, skin parasites (mange or ear mites), and autoimmune diseases." Other possible causes include drug reactions, nutrient deficiencies, and infections caused by bacteria, yeast/fungi, or viruses.

Signs of Miliary Dermatitis in Cats

Miliary dermatitis may be easier to feel when petting your cat than it is to see. If you notice these signs, your feline friend may have miliary dermatitis or possibly another skin condition, so it's best to consult your vet:

  • Red, crusty rash or pimple-like wounds (usually around the neck, head, flanks, belly, and/or back)
  • Frequent scratching
  • Lesions and scabs because of scratching
  • Excessive licking and over-grooming
  • Thinning of the cat's coat in certain areas

Is Miliary Dermatitis in Cats Contagious?

Feline miliary dermatitis is not contagious to humans, other cats, or other pets. However, if the underlying cause is a fungus, parasite, or bacteria, that culprit can be passed on to people and pets. That's why an in-person visit to your vet is always recommended if you notice your cat is uncomfortable or has abnormal skin.

Feline Miliary Dermatitis Treatment Options

The best treatment for miliary dermatitis in cats depends on the underlying cause. Your vet will do an exam and may need to run a battery of tests to figure out what's causing your cat's skin issues. Many cats are first treated with antihistamines and essential fatty acids (EFAs) to relieve the itching. Further treatment is aimed at the source of the allergy.

Sellers shared these recommendations based on the cause of your cat's allergic reaction:

Fleas

To control fleas, use an effective monthly flea preventative recommended by your vet. Revolution is a topical solution that also kills mites, so if the cat has a house dust mite or storage mite allergy, this product will also treat that.

Mange

If parasites, mange, or fungus are to blame, your cat's miliary dermatitis can be treated with the appropriate medication prescribed by your vet. This may include topical and/or oral treatments.

Food Allergies

Food allergies generally cause inflammation and excessive grooming of the lower abdomen and inguinal area, face, eye area, and neck. Food allergy testing can be done by your veterinarian and the offending protein sources can be eliminated from the diet, or an elimination diet trial can be done over a series of weeks or months. Your vet may also recommend a hypoallergenic diet or hydrolyzed protein diet based on your individual cat's needs, but always consult your vet before changing your cat's diet on your own.

Environmental Allergens

Inhalant and pollen allergies can cause inflammation of the inner thighs, the abdomen, chest, inner forelegs, neck, and lips. If antihistamines and EFAs are not enough, your vet may prescribe a steroid, immunosuppressive drug, or immunotherapy (allergy shots) to treat this type of allergen.

Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune disorders may cause inflammation at the nail beds, nipples, around the eyes, and ear edges. Steroids or immunosuppressive drugs are also often used to treat this type of ailment.

Infections

If bacteria, yeast/fungus, or viruses are to blame, your cat's miliary dermatitis can be treated with the appropriate medication prescribed by your vet. This often involves multiple topical and oral medications.

What's the Prognosis for Cats with Miliary Dermatitis?

Once it's determined what the cat is allergic to and the allergen is removed, the skin condition can typically be managed. Of course, it's virtually impossible to remove some allergens from your cat's environment and miliary dermatitis can recur. Often, it takes a combination of therapies to combat the different allergens and bring relief to your pet. It may also involve multiple follow-up visits to the vet.

3 Common Myths for Cat Parents to Consider

Sellers says she often sees cat parents mistakenly believe these common myths. But luckily, they're pretty easy to reconsider and give your cat the best care possible.

1. "My cat is indoors so she can't have pollen allergies."

Actually, environmental allergies, including pollens, are worse indoors because of the concentration of the allergens in a closed environment. They often come in through windows, doors, and on our shoes and clothing.

Try setting up an air purifier in your home to filter out allergens and pesky pet dander to keep the humans in your home breathing easier, too.

2. "My cat can't have fleas because he is indoors."

Nope, fleas can be carried into the home or apartment on a human's clothing or by another pet who goes outdoors (even if the other pet is on flea preventative). You may not even see the fleas on your cat due to fastidious grooming.

3. "My cat must not have allergies because he isn't sneezing."

Not so. Just like in humans, sneezing isn't the only allergic response symptom for cats. In fact, it's more common for allergies in cats to cause a rash or itchy skin as opposed to respiratory effects.

When it comes to feline miliary dermatitis (and any other pet health problem), always consult your vet to help bring relief to your kitty. It's also best to follow your vet's recommendations for follow-up treatments to prevent this condition from coming back.

 

A version of this article was originally written by Denise Caiazzo.